Bookseller and Auctioneer

Author and bibliophile, well known in England for his superlative research which led to the detection of the forgeries of the internationally respected book collector Thomas J. Wise, JOHN CARTER is a Director of Scribner’s London house. Last year he delivered the Sandars Lectures at Cambridge University — lectures which were the source material for his new book, Taste and Technique in Book-Collecting, which will be published in the early summer by the R. R. Bowker Company.

by JOHN CARTER

I

ON YOUR Shakespeare of 1623,” wrote Thomas Rodd, the London bookseller, to Thomas P. Barton, a collector in New York, in the middle of the last century, “on your Shakespeare of 1623 I pin my reputation, moral as well as bibliographical. If you do not find it in every respect perfect and genuine, I will make you a present of the book, and will in addition forfeit ten pounds a leaf for every one that is not genuine.” Rodd’s language is perhaps more flowery than would be employed today by Maggs or Francis Edwards, Rosenbach or Goodspeed: but his attitude towards his customer and his book differs only in degree, not in kind, from that of any honorable bookseller of his day or ours. The great dealers of Rodd’s time were as good bookmen as their customers, taking a keen interest in their collections, fighting their battles in the auction room, scouring the British Isles and the Continent in their interest.

The traditions of expertise and integrity set by the principal booksellers of the nineteenth century have been worthily maintained, despite a few exceptions, in the twentieth. There was, indeed, cause for apprehension in the ninetcen-twenties, when stock-market tactics were introduced into the book business on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, particularly, a group of arriviste dealers hurried to assume patches from the mantle of George D. Smith, that, tremendous buccaneer who had singed the beard of every reverend signior in Europe in the interests of Huntington and other customers, and had taught his countrymen that the principle of toujours l’audace could be as effect ive in the auction room as in other fields of warlike diplomacy. Some of these men were not so much booksellers as financial operators in the book market, as were some of the collectors whom they served; and though they mostly disappeared along with the conditions in which such operations thrive, the book trade as a whole proved not entirely immune from the infection of their methods.

The chastening thirties did much to redress the damage, for they made a necessity of virtue. But it remains to be seen whether another boom can be weathered without developing shock tactics, speculation, and “merchandising”: a question to which the answer lies as much in the hands of collectors as of booksellers.

In general, however, the peculiarly intimate relationship between bookseller and collector has not merely survived unimpaired the strains and stresses of the past quarter of a century. It has in some ways been intensified. For if integrity is an absolute quality, expertise is relative. And if the collector must always rely on the former in a steady measure, he has to rely more heavily on the latter with every decade’s increase in special knowledge and connoisseurship.

A bookseller may be as honest as the day, but if he does not know that the Aldine Poliphilus (Venice, 1499) needs a leaf of errata, that there is a secondary binding of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (3 vols., 1859), that a half-title is called for in the second volume of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) but not in the first — to take three points which in fact every bookseller does know — he may in all good faith sell you a wrong book. Of course he will take it back if you know. But collectors cannot know everything. As often as not they must ask not only “Is this an honest copy?” but also “Is it right?”

The distinction between ethics and expertise was clearly present in the mind of Thomas Rodd when he pledged his reputation “moral as well as bibliographical.” And the necessity for confidence in both has more recently been stated, perhaps in a rather extreme form, but certainly with a salutary emphasis, by Messrs. Winterieh and Randall in their Primer of Book Collecting. “If the collector,” they maintain, “cannot find a dealer in whose complete honesty and judgment he can place as much faith as he does, say, in that of his doctor, lawyer or minister, he had better stop collecting. For neither he nor the dealer will have any fun. Collecting is a two-way street, and the rare book dealer of integrity who feels that a particular collector does not have faith in him (despite, perhaps, an occasional unwitting error) will cheerfully give up that collector.”

It is the honorable dealer’s pleasure and pride, no less than his duty and his business, to foster the collections of his customers. He tries to be worthy of their confidence: but he has a right to some confidence in return. A suspicious or a grudging collector brings out the worst in his bookseller; and if it is natural for the ignorant to be more suspicious than the experienced—really ignorant collectors are usually either criminally credulous or absurdly suspicious — the veterans have less excuse.

No bookseller resents a reasoned skepticism in bibliographical matters, nor an honest difference of opinion as to the value of a book. Indeed, a good bookseller respects, appreciates, and is glad to profit by both, when they are backed by knowledge and experience. What he does resent is a collector who regularly assumes that he is about to be deceived and automatically regards a marked price as something to be reduced. He will sell to such a one reluctantly and with a sour heart. For though booksellers are destined always to be parting from books, they have a liking for them and a pride in their own stock. The grocer who sells a pound of butter cares nothing who eats it. But the bookseller who has a fine thing to dispose of would rather sell it to someone who will appreciate it, whose collection is worthy of it, and whose pleasure in the transaction can be shared by both parties to it.

2

IT IS this unanimity of interest between collector and dealer which so sharply differentiates the function and atmosphere of the bookshop from those of the auction room. The auctioneer is, of course, interested in the general health of book-collecting, But his interest is inevitably an impartial one, since his first duly is to his consigners. It is as inevitably impersonal: for though he can, if he likes, solicit bids from individual collectors for individual books, he is selling something which he has not bought himself, so that his offerings reflect a borrowed, sometimes an alien, personality. And between sales there is little to maintain his relationship with the collector, which is therefore fitful as well as oblique, where the bookseller’s is close, continuous, and direct. An important sale strikes sparks from the collecting world and the rostrum is vividly, though momentarily, highlighted. But it is the constant and fostering care of the bookseller which maintains the collector at or near the sparking temperature.

To stress the essential difference of these two functions is by no means to depreciate the importance of the auction room to collectors and dealers alike. Quite the contrary. Sales are a vital component in the machinery of book-collecting, and the great auction houses lend a color, an excitement, and a romance to the business of dispersal and acquisition, which is as welcome to the trade as it is stimulating to the collector. But whereas the bookseller is under no temptation to usurp the auctioneer’s function, since he has not the means even if he had the will, the auctioneers of New York have for a couple of decades past been moving into the territory of the dealers, so that the distinction of function has tended, in America at any rate, to become blurred.

In the last century and the early years of the present (as to a strictly limited extent still in England today) a book auction was really a wholesaling operation, the retailing being done by the booksellers, who solicited and handled their customers’ bids but also bought largely for stock. Private collectors were not encouraged to bid in person and seldom did so, preferring to entrust their ventures to their agents, whose expert assistance, first in appraising, then in securing, and finally in collating the book, they thus enlisted, in return for a commission of 10 per cent, or sometimes less.

This practice suited the auctioneer for several reasons. The purchasers were commonly dealers of established status, to whom he could give credit without question. They were also reasonably expert, so that unnoticed faults in a book would be exposed before rather than after the fall of the hammer, thus minimizing the troublesome business of returns. But most important of all, the preponderance of professional over private bidding gave a stability to prices which the dealers had a real and personal interest in maintaining, in bad times as in good. Even the bookseller is not wholly proof against the psychology of the auction room: but he will neither bid himself, nor encourage any customer for whom he is acting to bid, a price grossly in excess of what he deems a book to be worth. He knows that fancy prices are bad for the book business in the long run, and that if he buys a book for twice what it is worth this month, his professional reputation will be, in some measure at least, involved when another copy turns up next month.

Private collectors have no such concern. When money is plentiful they will throw it about in the auction room as they would never do in a bookshop. But when times are bad, it is no business of theirs if a hundred-pound book goes for a fiver. And in market where most prices are, after all, artificial, the impression that the same book can have a widely different value in different sets of circumstances is as dangerous to the well-being of collectors and auctioneers as it is to booksellers.

Apart from the fact that many people get a little drunk with the excitement of the auction room, the idea is still prevalent among collectors that auction prices are always cheaper than bookshop prices. This was perhaps apt to be the case in the days when auction prices were more nearly wholesale than retail in character and when one’s opponent was a bookseller bidding for stock. It was never true when he was bidding on commission, and it is seldom true at all today in the major sale rooms of London and New York, whether the opposing bid be on commission or for stock.

In general a collector bidding in person is likely to pay as much as, and sometimes more than, he would have done if he had given his bid to his bookseller or bought, the item from a bookshop. To grudge the dealer his commission, as the unthinking or the mean do, is like dispensing with an architect for your house. For there is much more to the execution of a commission for a customer than a readiness to nod to the auctioneer more persistently than another.

Anyone who considers 10 per cent a high price to pay for a bookseller’s expertise should read the conditions of sale printed in all auction catalogues. He will be surprised by the almost complete disclaimer of any warranty whatsoever in respect of the goods to be offered. Unless he is prepared not only to inspect but to collate the book he wants, in advance, and unless he knows himself better qualified than his bookseller to do so, he may consider his bibliographical insurance alone cheap at the price. But in addition he will have had his bookseller’s advice, if he wants it, on what this copy is worth, and also on what if may be expected to fetch in this particular sale, which is often something different again. And finally he will have the services of an expert in the actual landing of the book, a proceeding sometimes calling for the nicest judgment.

3

THE diffident private bidder is always a trifle flurried. Not only is he the cynosure of the room, but he is also trying feverishly to identify the bidder against him. This is instinctive, and he would often be none the wiser for the knowledge. In fact, of course, if his opponent is a dealer, he will probably, having once caught the auctioneer’s attention, be bidding with his eyebrow or by raising his pencil. If the other bid is at the desk, our poor friend will feel that he is boxing with shadows, and after three or four raises he will not know which is his bid and which the auctioneer’s. It is at this point that an unscrupulous auctioneer (and they do exist) will either let the collector bid himself up or, when that fails, will “pick a bid off the wall,” as the phrase is, to raise him another notch or two. No self-confident, person, of course, would be thus put about. He will bid boldly, and show his hand; or he will think to come in triumphantly at the end, and have the book knocked down elsewhere while he is still holding his fire; or he will mistake another collector for a dealer and assume that he can safely go one higher, until he has paid far more than his book is worth.

Even if the collector is neither diffident nor overconfident, nor a conspicuous expert, he will often conclude that his bookseller knows the angles better than he can ever expect to do. For an old auction-room hand has a shrewd idea which booksellers are likely to be seriously interested in which lots; he knows from long experience what deductions can be drawn from the way they are bidding; he will probably have developed a sixth sense for a strong commission elsewhere in the room, and will handle his own bidding accordingly. Playing a bid is like playing a fish. An air of reluctance, even of disinterest, will be successful with one lot, while a resolute, money-no-object opening may on another occasion discourage competition and secure the book well below one’s mark. This sounds a fascinating game, and so it is. But it is a game for professionals, not amateurs.

This opinion would probably be endorsed by most English auctioneers, who believe in a predominantly professional clientele. Their sales are conducted, their catalogues prepared, and their advertising devised accordingly. They admit the loud-speaker and the news cameras on a great occasion, but the normal sale is a subdued gathering of quiet men round a dingy green baize table. They will sometimes spread themselves over the description of a spectacular book, but their catalogues are commonly stripped to the bare essentials (and sometimes further), on the assumption that they are provided for professionals, not the uninstructed, and furthermore that the function of an auction catalogue is accurate description and not ballyhoo.

New York’s practice is different because its policy is different. The one major auction house in the city has deliberately set itself to attract direct collector-custom and it conducts its operations accordingly. Even in the days before this policy was adopted, American sales were held in a very different style from London’s: usually in the evening, with a fashionable crowd at any important dispersal; comfortable chairs, and uniformed staff calling bids for the auctioneer; a spotlight on the lot selling, which is reverently displayed on a dais (no passing round the table); in short, an atmosphere eminently conducive to the painless extraction of that extra bid. This technique has proved very effective, and if the dealers are sufficiently habituated to be immune, the public are not.

Cataloguing style follows the same pattern. Descriptions of condition are much fuller, which benefits the out-of-town dealer as well as the collector, and must be generally considered a very advantageous contrast, so long as the descriptions are accurate, to the tight-lipped manner of London. But the entries are not confined to description. They are freely garnished with puffs of one kind and another, and it is this consciously promotional character which distinguishes them so clearly from the English variety. They often read more like a bookseller’s catalogue than an auctioneer’s exposition of consigned goods, and that is exactly what, essentially, they are: for they are not so much designed to describe books for booksellers as to sell them to collectors.

Now this ambition, which is furthered by correspondence and personal contacts, is an entirely proper one in itself: judged, that is, without relation to book-collecting as a whole. It also has a plausible sound: cut out the middleman, and the owner gets more money while the buyer pays less. But it remains to be seen whether it can be fully achieved, in New York or anywhere else, without doing such harm to the delicate and complex structure of the book business as will eventually react just as sharply on its proponents as on the retailers whom they are willing to by-pass.

4

IT WILL perhaps be not inappropriate to conclude with a word or two about prices in general. Most collectors want a short simple formula for telling whether such and such a book is too dear, dear but probably not to be let pass, fairly priced, cheap but perhaps hardly a good enough copy even at that price, or finally a “sitter” or “sleeper,” as the booksellers call a real bargain. There is, of course, no such formula. The collector will have to learn about prices by the hard way of experience, though he may assist himself by studying sales records and booksellers’ catalogues and by inquiry among his fellow collectors.

I will venture, however, to suggest a few general principles.

1. Auction records are most unreliable guides unless full account is taken of the quality of the copy (seldom deducible from the annual summaries), the date (whether in a period of high or low prices), and the character of the sale (pedigree sales make higher prices even for the minor books than miscellaneous sales).

2. A cheap mediocre copy is probably more expensive than a high-priced but brilliant example of the same book.

3. The collector must expect to pay a little more for a book which is reported to him than for one which he digs out: he is paying for the bookseller’s time, trouble, and memory.

4. It is unreasonable to expect a bookseller who has bought a bargain to forgo his profit simply because his purchase price is known to his customer, or to sell for a 10 per cent profit what he invested his own money in (not his customer’s) at an auction.

5. Books are by no means always dearer in the West End of London than in the suburbs or the provinces (and the same goes for New York).

6. Real howling bargains are very rare. They should never be reckoned on or waited for, or one may wait forever. The best purchases most collectors make are due to prescience, not good fortune: they are the books bought at a fair market price ten years, five years, perhaps even only one year before enough other people are looking for them to send the price up.

7. If a collector is in doubt whether a certain book for which he has been looking is not, when he finds it, overpriced, let him consider the bookseller’s probable attitude towards that particular book. Some booksellers overprice from ignorance, others from knowledge abetted by a belief that the book is rarer or more important than has been generally supposed.

8. Never bargain. If you succeed in beating the bookseller down on this book, you will have saved a little money. But will he offer you the next one he knows you want? A marked price is a dealer’s honest opinion. You are fully entitled to disagree with him and to say so. But you should take the book or leave it. If you leave it and he is right, someone else will get it. He may, of course, be wrong. If so, the book will stay with him and he will probably meet you of his own accord after a decent interval.

9. Never think, when you are buying a book, what it will sell for—tomorrow or fifty years hence. As Messrs. Winterich and Randall have well said: “A man who considers books primarily as investments or speculations is not a collector. He is in the book business. ... No man can serve two masters, and no wise man tries.”

10. Lastly, be less afraid of paying a stiff price than of letting slip some book you know to be rare and which is important to you. You cannot tell when, at what price, or even whether, you will see another. De Ricci expressed this principle in an eloquent passage which shall serve for my peroration: “Out-bidding is the very essence of collecting. The most sacred duty of every collector is to overpay. To outbid and overpay is not a calamity, but an absolute necessity. . . .

“Every great collection in the world, ever since there have been collectors, has been made by men who had foresight enough to secure for themselves, to snatch away from others, objects that they understood to be really significant and desirable. You must therefore be prepared not only to outbid your competitors, but also to outwit them. ’All is fair,’ says the proverb, ‘in love and war.’ Collecting, we will most of us admit, partakes both of love and war.”